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The Conservative leadership election: Theresa May’s coronation or Michael Gove’s coming-of-age?

Image credit: Suffragio
Image credit: Suffragio
Image credit: Suffragio

The EU referendum has produced one of the most volatile periods of British politics in recent times. On one side, Jeremy Corbyn faces a tremendous centre-left coalition demanding his resignation. On the other, there is a fiery debate beginning within the Conservative Party. After the deep divisions that the EU campaign has exposed, reuniting the party will be a tall order.

The words of the Conservative backbencher David Davis go a long way in showing why Boris Johnson’s aborted leadership campaign never got off the ground. Davis argued that Michael Gove had told him to support Johnson, only for Gove to then stand himself the next morning. This reaffirms the definitive characteristics of Conservative leadership elections: they are never casualty free and test loyalties to the brink. Boris Johnson may be out, but the fierce, career-levelling debate is only in its infancy.

Theresa May is not only a rare breed as a Conservative frontbencher who is seen in a relatively good light with the electorate, but also a candidate uniquely capable of uniting the party following the EU referendum. There are plans for a ‘Department of ‘Brexit” and she herself has expressed the need for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights whilst being on the ‘Remain’ side of the debate, softening ‘Mother Theresa’s’ image as a ‘Bremainer’ to the arch ‘Brexiteers’. While May doesn’t have the charisma of Johnson, key makings of a future PM have underpinned her tenure as Home Secretary. She is perceived to have competence and integrity amid a comparatively low profile. Despite this, she retains conviction and a work ethic that would make even Margaret Thatcher blush.

For Michael Gove,  there is a lot of work to do. His ministerial career thus far has not covered him in any glory. From reprimands to keep quiet from Speaker Bercow, to his unpopular time as Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s name is a catch-all for incompetence, sleaze and gaffes. Gove’s principal advantages are successes as a political campaigner. Having just won with the ‘Leave’ campaign, the former Education Secretary must hone this momentum into an optimistic campaign with real conviction, whilst equally uniting the Conservative Party. While Gove may not have the credentials, he certainly has the contacts.

The other candidates are all dark horses capable of upsetting the bookmaker’s predictions. Despite this they will all have to face up to allegations of misconduct. Stephen Crabb is often viewed as young and dynamic. But Crabb is also perceived to be a liability: allegations of questionable views on LGBTQ rights have surfaced in the press. Whilst traditional values are not seen as negative to Tory activists, calling homosexuality ‘curable’ could be a step too far. Even in a country with a Conservative economic consensus, the understanding of the need for positive liberal reform makes a ‘Crabb administration’ unpalatable.

Liam Fox, darling of Southern lobbyists, has some merit as a candidate. A stoic Brexiteer and a powerful speaker, Fox is let down by his enormous 2009 expenses bill. Fox was also in the news for all the wrong reasons concerning his friendship with Adam Werritty. If one of the lesser-known candidates is likely to win, Andrea Leadsom leads the way. Seen as competent, intelligent and brimming with integrity, Leadsom’s role in the resolving of the Libor Scandal cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, Leadsom’s Achilles heel may be the allegation of inheritance tax avoidance.

If the Conservatives vote for the candidate which can best unite the party with a knack for avoiding scandals, then Theresa May will win. But if the EU Referendum has taught us anything, we should be prepared for any eventuality.